The Sacred Vow

In an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, three Italian women who have had relations with priests say a priest “needs to live with his fellow human beings, experience feelings, love and be loved.”  They assert that obligatory celibacy results in destruction and question whether a rule that results in guilt when priests disobey their vows or abandon the priesthood, or that results in painful loneliness when they don’t, can be the rule of God.

The women want the Pope to allow priests to marry, but I have pondered similar questions when considering another “sacred vow of celibacy:” the vow to wait until marriage to have sex.

It’s a vow many Protestant churches, including my own, expect and encourage their members to take, especially the young members.

Every Youth Day speaker I can remember in my 20-some-odd years of being able to comprehend sermons has said to wait until marriage to have sex, justifying the mandate as God’s command.  I can’t remember, however, hearing any of the ministers address what to do if you never get married.

I have heard ministers and pastors not relegated to a special day for youth address the issue.  Sort of.  These people say that God will give you strength to resist temptation and a route to escape from it.  You may be alone, but not lonely.  You will experience the incomparable joy of serving your Lord with the commitment that only a single person who doesn’t have to worry about a spouse or children can have.  And you will never experience what these married men, divorced older women, or 30+ single mothers who never married and who, while readily confessing their “mistakes,” have no regrets about the children that resulted from an unholy union, have experienced.

That last part is always omitted, and of course, they say this to mainly adult audiences who they presume have already broken their vow of celibacy at some point.  The message is more like, “Wait until marriage, this time.”

But for youth, it’s, “Wait until marriage.”  Period.

Although the message is standard in most churches, the message and the omission are especially significant for predominantly black churches, like the one I attend.  The high percentage (72%) of single black women having children, the low percentage (about 60%, compared to about 80% of white women) of black women getting married, and the high percentage (50%) of new HIV infections among blacks ages 13-29 show that chances of black teens keeping their sacred vow are slim.

Yes, I believe God is able to empower a faithful teen, woman, or man of any race to beat statistics.  But I also consider what factors besides strong hormones and weak will power lead teens into sex, and I think about the normalcy of an adult life without it.

What if I hadn’t been as busy studying, working and participating in various scholastic clubs as I was in high school?  What if my mother didn’t have a master’s degree and more education wasn’t the obvious choice for me?  What if I had been popular?  What if I had first entered a church at age 16 instead of at age 6 weeks?  What if I had thought that my two closest friends were cool instead of stupid for having to take pregnancy tests their sophomore, junior and senior years?  What if my dad hadn’t fed me a steady diet of positive self-affirmations?  What if I was depressed, aimless, and purposeless?

And if for some odd reason a self-confident, college-educated black woman finds herself unmarried at 22 … 25 … 28 … 30, should she keep the sacred vow?  Should she not feel the closeness, the spiritual union of an act of love that God equipped human beings to experience and that sober, consenting adults can handle?  Would God want her to feel as if a scarlet “A” was sewn to her dress every time a sermon drifted into condemnation of sexual sin?  Would he want her to just choose her sex drive and abandon her Christianity completely?

The question is not for teens to ponder.  They are to hold to their dreams of marriage right after college.  I, on the other hand, support the will to wait, but not the dogmatic necessity.  I’m definitely against children having sex, because it’s deeper than hormones and has life and death consequences, and they may not get that.  But I don’t think the millions of grown women who will “fall” are showing a lack of faith that God will one day bring them a husband in the form of the elusive good (black) man.  Nor do I think these women should feel tainted or feel as though holiness is irreparably broken when the hymen is torn.  Condemned by many of my brothers and sisters as I’m sure I will be with this post, I believe we adults have and need love and freedom, and that the expression of it is not confined to an institution many black women and Catholic priests never enter into.

I love how the open letter ends:

“The God that Jesus spoke about wants precisely what the Catholic Church today fears more than anything: free, happy and mature human life, which is not born of anguish, but of obedient trust and which is free from the limitations of the tyranny of a traditional theology that prefers to seek the truth of God in sacred scripture rather than in the sanctity of human life.”

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